How to Detect Bias and Propaganda

  How to Detect Bias and Propaganda

Bias is showing a preference for one side over another rather than being neutral; bias is used to influence people either negatively or positively towards an idea or event.

Bias is based in the beliefs and values

of the person(s) involved and, therefore, their ideology as well. In the media, bias is in newspapers, magazines, poster, TV programs, and the Internet. Someone may claim, " The newspaper article was biased towards the positive aspects of police use of tasers and did not include any negative effects of taser use. " This statement suggests the writer of the newspaper article was trying to influence people to accept the use of police tasers by omitting the negative things about taser use.

Every writer has his or her own attitude, point of view, and worldview. However, news stories are supposed to be objective. They are supposed to present the facts and not try to influence the reader one way or another.

Consider some ways in which bias is shown.

Bias through selection and omission:

  • By choosing whether to cover a specific news item, a news source communicates what it believes should matter to the public.
  • Within the story, details can be ignored or included to give readers or viewers a particular view about the events reported.
  • How to Uncover Bias: Compare news reports from several sources to get the full story.

Bias through placement:

  • Where a story is placed within the newspaper or news program influences what a reader or viewer thinks about its importance.
  • The first story in the news is assumed to be more important than stories at the end of the news or in the back pages of the paper.
  • How to Uncover Bias: Compare news reports from various sources and judge for yourself the importance of a news item.

Bias by headline:

  • As the most-read part of a newspaper, headlines can express approval or criticism.
  • How to Uncover Bias: Read the story completely to determine if the facts support the opinion suggested by the title.

Bias through choice of words:

  • In many places in the world, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. Words have emotional connotations as well as literal meanings. By using emotionally charged words, the writer can influence the feelings of the audience.
  • How to Uncover Bias: Consider the connotations of the words. Substitute words that are less value-laden. Does the meaning of the story change?

Consider the following excerpt of an article entitled "The Clay Giant" by Nazi Minister of Public Enlightment, Joseph Goebbels. The article was published in November 1941. In the article, Goebbels discusses Great Britain's chances of winning World War II. How do Goebbels's choice of words attempt to provoke an emotional response from his audience?

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as is well known, is a close friend of alcohol. His relations to the truth are a bit more strained. He has been on a war footing ever since his entry into political life. He is one of the world's best known liars. Not only do those in neutral and enemy nations smile when he says something, even knowledgeable circles in England cannot repress a grin. Everyone knows how he adds or subtracts, for example. At the moment he divides figures that are unfavorable for England by three, and multiplies the favorable ones by the same figure.

Courtesy, Randall Bytwerk

Bias by photos, captions, and camera angles:

  • Pictures can flatter people or make them look bad.
  • The photos chosen can influence heavily the public's perception of a person or event.
  • On television, this choice is even more important.
  • Captions and the narration of a TV anchor or reporter are also potential sources of bias.
  • How to Uncover Bias: Think about the attitude conveyed by the image. Does it portray an unbiased viewpoint?

Consider the images below. Do you consider that they use any form of bias to get their message across?

German Poster, 1918

Bolshevism brings war, unemployment, and famine.

Association for the Fight against Bolshevism.

SUMMARY: Poster shows an angel holding an olive branch standing in front of a mass of German soldiers and civilians. In front of the angel is Soviet communist holding a knife and preparing to throw a bomb.

┬ęCourtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC2-1234

United States Poster, 1941-43 Alaska: Death Trap for the Jap

SUMMARY: Poster for Thirteenth Naval District, United States Navy, showing a rat representing Japan, approaching a mousetrap labelled "Army Navy Civilian", on a background map of the state of Alaska.

┬ęCourtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USCZ2-985

Soviet Poster, 1940s

Fascism - is a starvation!
Fascism - is a terror!
Fascism - is a war!

SUMMARY: Poster shows a child with an outstretched hand next to the huddled figure of an old person. Barely visible in the background is a red image of a soldier and some industrial buildings, possible representing a concentration camp.


If you are interested in learning more about propaganda, locate Propaganda:The Formation of Men's Attitudes by Jacques Ellul, which is considered to be one of the best books on the subject

Last modified: Thursday, 27 February 2020, 3:30 PM